May 7 – Alexis of Wilkes-Barre; Albert of Bergamo

Alexis of Wilkes-Barre (1853–1909), born in Slovakia (in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to a Greek Catholic priest and his matushka (or equivalent), attended seminary, got married (tragically his wife and child died very early), and became a priest. In time he accepted an invitation from the Ruthenian Catholic Church in the United States, and was soon at St. Mary’s in Minneapolis. The parish was a wreck—the physical plant was crumbling, vestments and furnishings were sorely lacking, they were heavily in debt, and their website had nothing but a “Welcome” screen. Alexis soon had the situation turned around.

Although an Eastern Rite priest, he was by longstanding (and boy were its legs tired) custom required to pay a visit to the Latin Rite bishop, one John Ireland, who was keen on “Americanizing” his ethnic parishes. The meeting turned into a shouting match, and culminated in Ireland refusing to let Alexis serve as a priest; indeed, he forbade his other priests to have anything to do with Alexis or his flock. Alexis wrote to his former bishop in Slovakia, but received only silence. In despair, he turned to the Russians, who introduced him to Bishop Vladimir Sokolovsky of San Francisco, who, in 1892, received St. Mary’s 261 parishioners into Orthodoxy en masse (not “during Mass”). Alexis was soon “converting” hundreds and then thousands of disaffected Greek Catholics to the Orthodox Church. (Alas, my sources don’t say whether Ireland’s response was “oops” or “don’t let the door.”)

Not the least interested in stemming the tide, Pope Pius IX in 1907 wrote an encyclical disallowing any new married priests (including immigrants), replacing chrismation with confirmation (at a later age and requiring a bishop), and placing the Greek Catholic bishops under the authority of (largely hostile) Latin Rite bishops. (Pope John Paul II would ultimately (and quite firmly) restore the dignity of the eastern rites, but that was decades off.) The trickle of conversions became a flood, and between 1892 and 1916, as many as 163 eastern-rite Catholic parishes and 100,000 believers “swam the Bosporus.”

Father Alexis was buried in his very own shrine at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Seminary, and was officially recognized as a saint by the Orthodox Church in America in 1994.

Albert of Bergamo (1214–1279) was a farmer’s son who early learned the important disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Indeed his almsgiving was too generous in the eyes of his young wife, who gave him holy h—well, she gave him a bad time. Eventually though, through his gentleness, not to mention a couple of miracles (having the food he had donated replenished), his wife came to see things his way, then promptly died. (There is presumably no causal link there.) Albert went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and Rome, and on the way back stopped to work at a farm in Cremona. He was a zealous worker, and (with the help of an unusually agrarian guardian angel), was soon earning double wages. His jealous coworkers planted iron rods in the fields, but his scythe cut through them like any blade of grass. He gave his wages to the poor, and ultimately founded a hospital for the indigent.

In 1256 he joined the Dominicans as a tertiary*, continuing to live and work “in the world.” In addition to his farm work, pilgrimages, and hospital funding, he worked diligently in the Dominican garden, taking care not to harvest the statuary. When he knew himself to be dying, he called for a priest, but none was available, so a dove brought him the viaticum (I had to look that up—it’s Holy Communion given to the dying). When he passed away the bells of Cremona (Italian for “non-dairy creamer”) rang of their own accord. He is the patron saint of day-laborers.